“The Feminine Mystique” at 50

“The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s highly influential feminist tract, is 50 years old. Julia Shaw, in the Washington Times, finds that women now live in the world Friedan built. But Shaw denies that this is worth celebrating.

Friedan did not write a manifesto advocating for women to have the opportunity to get out of the house, get an education and get jobs. No, Friedan’s fundamental premise is that women must do these things to be considered human. In other words, women who do what women have been doing for millennia—tending house and caring for their families—are sub-human. What’s more, they are ruining society. Her support for these incendiary claims? A critical reading of Ladies’ Home Journal and Freud.

Moreover, Friedan’s concept of fulfilling work is far too rigid:

To be serious about work, women must be “away from home to do it.” Friedan favors a “no-nonsense nine-to-five job with clear division between professional work and housework.” Even a freelance writing job is “one of the semi-delusions of the feminine mystique.”

In my view, Friedan’s book is a period piece. One’s attitude towards working outside the home will always depend in large part on the quality of the work world, and the quality of that world will vary over time. For much of our history, the work world was, for most people, a physically grueling, tedious place. Women didn’t need a “false consciousness” to find it less than attractive.

By 1962, the situation was changing quickly. The new “office world” was alluring. But a generation of women, Friedan’s generation, was missing out on it or feared that they would. Hence, the frustration that helped fuel the feminism of that era.

Nowadays, “office world” seems less attractive than before. That, at least, is the case at most law firms. In this context, the home regains some of its “mystique.” I hasten to add, however, that the home has always had much more to recommend it than Friedan supposed.

Shaw picks up on this theme. She finds that many 21st century women are looking to escape Freidan’s straitjacket, which finds them trapped in monotonous and/or unpleasant office jobs. Some leave high-paying prestigious positions to spend more time with their children. Many others find refuge in domestic hobbies.

Increasingly they recognize, as Shaw puts it, that “we don’t need to go back to the 1950s, but we can’t stay here.”